In December 2006, workers broke cold ground in lower Manhattan, preparing the way for a glass-clad, towering hotel, to be called Trump SoHo. There, just west of the South of Houston Street neighborhood, the backhoes dug down. They hit hundreds of bones: human skulls, femurs and forearms.
Turns out, the site had once held the 19th-century burial vault of a church known for its abolitionist stance and inclusion of African-Americans. The hotel developers — including a little-known company called Bayrock Group — suddenly owned an American historic site.
Church archivist David Pultz says Bayrock officials stalled DNA testing for years. "My suspicion was they were trying to avoid controversy" that might bring more scrutiny, he said.
A hotel behind veils
In fact, at Trump SoHo, a lot remains unknown, including the project's true source of funding. But now the man whose name brands the hotel — Donald Trump — lives in the White House. And his financial ties reportedly are being investigated by Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller in connection with a larger probe into possible ties between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russian officials.
Note this: In a lawsuit, Bayrock's former finance director Jody Kriss portrays the firm as a money-laundering operation, used to conceal transfers of illicit funds and disguise them as legitimate real estate transactions. He also alleges that cash infusions from overseas were fraudulently portrayed as loans to help the firm's principals evade taxes.
"Tax evasion and money laundering are the core of Bayrock's business model," the lawsuit alleges. And the Trump SoHo building, it said, was "a monument to spectacularly corrupt money-laundering and tax evasion."
Bayrock has denied money-laundering allegations; the company's spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. The White House referred all questions about Trump SoHo to the Trump Organization, which did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Mueller's team reportedly is specifically looking into money laundering in New York City real estate. That investigation — along with the discovery process of various lawsuits — may help uncover information about the business back story of the man whom Americans have elected president.
And the NPR podcast Embedded also has been digging around, trying to understand more about one Trump signature project. Here's what the reporters learned.
How it all started
With much fanfare, Trump announced the project on his TV show, The Apprentice, in 2006. Throughout the years, the project kept making news, what with the bones, a heated standoff with the neighborhood and the grisly death of a construction worker. And lawsuits started to hit, alleging fraud and shady financing.
Donald Trump announces Trump SoHo on the Apprentice in 2006.
The early zoning battles set the tone: Residential properties weren't allowed in the neighborhood where the property was proposed. Local activists confidently predicted zoning problems would kill the 46-story project. But city officials allowed the building to go up as a condo-hotel hybrid.
Units were sold like condos, but owners could stay only a few weeks at a time, totaling about four months annually. For Trump, it was a licensing deal: The developer would get use of Trump's name, and Trump would get fees for managing the building. And in a legal deposition, Trump said he also got an 18 percent equity share of the building.